Japan and Singapore can deepen ties despite Covid-19, geopolitical strains: Panellists at symposium

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Chee Hong Tat said Singapore can learn from Japan its "X factor" - the people's resilience and civic-mindedness.
Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Chee Hong Tat said Singapore can learn from Japan its "X factor" - the people's resilience and civic-mindedness.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Japan and Singapore have many opportunities to deepen their relationship, even in the face of great power rivalry between the United States and China, the retreat of globalisation and dislocation caused by the pandemic, noted speakers at the 14th Japan-Singapore Symposium on Thursday (March 18).

Among other things, they expressed hope for greater cooperation in digitalisation and the green economy, better distribution of vaccines, and growing common values such as the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade.

The speakers included Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Chee Hong Tat; his counterpart, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Eiichiro Washio; Ambassador-At-Large Tommy Koh; and Waseda University's Professor Yukiko Fukagawa.

In his opening speech at the symposium, held virtually for the first time since its inception in 1995, Mr Chee said Singapore will continue to cooperate closely with Japan as both countries chart their paths towards a post-Covid recovery.

He noted that Singapore and Japan have started vaccinations, which bodes well for the reopening of their economies, restoration of connectivity, and resumption of people-to-people exchanges.

"In this regard, we look forward to working with Japan and other countries on the issue of mutual recognition of Covid-19 vaccination certificates," he said, adding that there is "huge potential" for cooperation in new areas including digitalisation, smart cities and the green economy.

Mr Chee added that Singapore can learn from Japan its "X factor" - the people's resilience and civic-mindedness.

Despite the sudden and devastating east Japan earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, he noted that the Japanese cared for one another in the community, and only collected the food and blankets they needed at distribution centres, keeping in mind others who also needed the provisions.

In his speech, Mr Washio said that the pandemic has added complexities to an increasingly uncertain world, with fundamental values and principles such as democracy, freedom, rule of law, and the market economy coming under threat.

The security environment is also becoming more difficult.

He said there were unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea, pointing to China's new law allowing its coast guard vessels to fire on foreign ships in waters it claims as its own.

Japan is working to realise the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific, he said, noting that Asean had issued its outlook on the Indo-Pacific in a statement in 2019 which articulated principles of rule of law, transparency and inclusiveness.

"We feel there is essential commonalities with the FOIP (free and open Indo-Pacific) that Japan is promoting and we are very much encouraged," said Mr Washio.

In a panel discussion later, Nanyang Technological University Professor Joseph Liow pointed out that the geopolitical concept of the Indo-Pacific was problematic for Asean.

The grouping's approach has been to remain equidistant from both US and China, even as it continues to recognise the importance of the US role in the region, said Prof Liow, who is dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

He added that multilateralism is an area where both countries have cooperated on and must continue to do so, including in the distribution of vaccines, and strengthening globalisation which both economies rely on.

Mr Manu Bhaskaran, founding director and chief executive of Centennial Asia Advisors, said during the panel discussion that the post-Covid world would be one of great disruption, with multiple technological changes underway in different areas, such as in biomedicine, IT and fintech.

"This affords us great opportunities but also the potential for great dislocation," he said, adding that Singapore firms can learn from Japan's medium-sized companies which provide components for many of these new technological revolutions.

The symposium was organised by think-tanks Singapore Institute of International Affairs and the Japan Institute of International Affairs.